Faith & Reason: We need to offer the world a different Chanukah gift this year

As Jews share with Christians their festivals of light they need to reach out to Muslims too - but they must be ready for a bruising encounter
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The Independent Online

This Friday marks the beginning of Chanukah, an eight-day festival of freedom. It commemorates the Jewish victory over the Hellenistic empire of Antiochus IV over 2,100 years ago. In 165 BCE, the Maccabees reclaimed the desecrated Temple in Jerusalem and rededicated it to God's service. The Hebrew word for "dedication" is chanukah and the annual event is marked in homes by lighting one candle on the first night, adding one candle each evening and culminating with eight candles on Chanukah's last night. Gifts are exchanged, and special prayers and songs are part of the festival liturgy. Chanukah, like Christmas, is a festival of light.

The Maccabees battled to preserve their religious and national identity. The Emperor Antiochus had attempted to destroy Jewish freedom by banning the teaching of the Jewish scriptures and by building idols, including a statue of himself, in the Temple. By overcoming Antiochus, Jews overcame a dictatorial regime. However, a change of rule is not enough; a successful fight for freedom requires internal as well as external transformation.

One example of transformation can be seen in the comment of Franz Rosenzweig, the Jewish thinker who almost converted to Christianity, about the saying of Jesus in the Gospel of John (vi,14) that "no one can reach the Father except through me". Rosenzweig does not attempt to get round this saying, indeed he asserts that it is true when one considers the millions who have been led to God through Jesus Christ. However, he continues:

The situation is quite different for one who does not have to reach the Father because he is already with Him. Shall I become converted, I who have been chosen?

Rosenzweig here introduces us to a crucial question of interfaith dialogue: can religious people give each other the theological space within which to flourish?

We Jews need to ponder the purpose behind the creation of Christianity and Islam. Does Jesus the Jew have any significance for us? What is the meaning that two billion followers of Jesus read the Jewish Bible? As for Islam, what is the significance of 1.2 billion Muslims' sharing many of the same customs as Jews (such as dietary laws) and adhering to a strict monotheism?

For Christians, there needs to be a profound reflection on the survival of the Jewish people and of the vitality of Judaism over 2,000 years. The question of the validity of Judaism challenges some of the proclamations of Christian triumphalism. How can Christianity differentiate itself from Judaism without asserting itself as either opposed to or simply the fulfilment of Judaism?

For Muslims, there needs to be serious reflection on the creation of the state of Israel as an act of national liberation following nearly 2,000 years of powerlessness and homelessness. Jews do not separate Zionism from its deep religious roots within Judaism but view it as an ancient promise fulfilled. Will Islam overcome the mistaken perception that the permanent existence of a Jewish state is a religious and political anomaly?

If the challenges faced by Muslim-Jewish dialogue seem daunting, consider the significant advances in Christian-Jewish relations in the last 100 years. One of the few pieces of good news in today's encounter between religions, Christian-Jewish dialogue arose despite profound theological differences and centuries of distrust. But the fact that Jews and Christians have built mutual respect and understanding does not mean that the same model can be uncritically applied to Islamic-Jewish relations.

Jews and Muslims today carry historical baggage which is quite different from that we bring to encounters with Christians. There has been nearly a century of fruitful Christian-Jewish dialogue, whereas building positive Islamic-Jewish relations represents a new challenge. That means that authentic Jewish-Muslim dialogue must be prepared for sharply conflicting views.

Yet the transformative power of dialogue has led Christianity to shift from what was, for the most part, an inherent need to condemn Judaism to one of a condemnation of Christian anti-Judaism. This process led not to a separation from all things Jewish but, in fact, to a closer relationship with "the elder brother". The rediscovery of the Jewish origins of Christianity has led to a greater awareness of a creative Jewish context and to the possibilities of a mutually enriching relationship.

This development has also had significance for Jews. In the early 20th century Jewish philosophers such as Martin Buber began a move towards a positive reassessment of Christianity. He reminded Jews that Jesus was a fellow Jew and called him their "great brother". This process continues today.

How should Jews and Muslims practically progress the dialogue? A foundation of mutual trust and respect is best built step by step - organising reciprocal visits to synagogues and mosques, developing joint strategies on issues such as discrimination, as well as supporting each other's attempt to maintain a distinctive religious identity in a society that promotes conformity to the majority culture.

We must move towards an encounter, which will take us on the journey from disdain to recognition when we will see the Other as a creature of God and part of God's special design for humanity: a respectful relationship that is called dialogue.

Edward Kessler is Director of the Centre for Jewish-Christian Relations, Cambridge